That this escalation in militarisation occurred at a time when the international community was scrutinising Sri Lanka is unsurprising. Intended to prevent a repeat of the protests even during the British Prime Minister’s visit to Jaffna, the arrests of prominent campaigners took place as the UN Human Rights Council began, effectively silenced any popular expressions of Tamil support for an international inquiry. The escalation of military repression subsequent to the UNHRC’s mandating of such a probe, and the proscription of diaspora groups, is collective punishment for the united Tamil support for an international investigation, and a warning against further challenges to the state. Many of those detained, including disappearances campaigner Balendran Jeyakumari, are imprisoned not in a local prison, but in Boosa – a place situated in the Sinhala heartland, that has since the beginning of the armed conflict been synonymous with torture and violent state repression.
It is no coincidence that the military’s claims of renewed LTTE activity, including the audacious claim of a new LTTE leadership, arose as Sri Lanka faced intense criticism precisely over its militarisation in the North-East. In a self-sustaining narrative, the military’s claims justify its presence. It is worth noting, militarisation of the North-East, far from seeking to protect Tamils as Sri Lankan citizens from external threats, is intended to protect Sri Lanka’s majoritarian order from Tamils. Indeed, the contrast in popular and media discourse between the military’s killing of three Tamil men this week, and that of three Sinhala men in Weliweriya is stark: apathetic endorsement of the former, and vehement condemnation of the latter. As we argued then, unless able to actively prove one’s allegiance to Sri Lanka as unitary Sinhala Buddhist state, to be a Tamil, makes you an understandable target of the state, and to be a politically active Tamil, makes you a legitimate one.
The Sri Lankan state’s definition of terrorism has a broad meaning, inclusive of laws that criminalise calls for independence and self-rule – a legitimate political view held by many peoples worldwide and one that has been central to the Tamil nation’s political aspirations since 1976. Recent arrests under the Prevention of Terrorism Act have encompassed not only those who the military claims are former LTTE cadre, (who despite having completed ‘rehabilitation’ are routinely re-arrested and interrogated), but their family, any close associates, disappearance campaigners, the diaspora at large, and those displaying signs, however innocuous, to the diaspora, such as the possession of foreign currency or having children residing abroad. As the proscription of diaspora groups makes evident, even the call for justice through international invention is branded as terrorism.
In effect, dominant Tamil political demands, whether that it is independent statehood from 1976, or international investigation since 2009, is criminalised as terrorism by the Sri Lankan state. Tamils, simply by virtue of their ethnicity, live with threat of arrest under the PTA looming over their heads at all times. Remarkably however, this has failed to silence voices from the North-East. Amidst palpable collective fear, key voices continue to condemn the state’s actions, despite the grave risks this entails. As the international probe begins its work, escalation of state violence, as a means of repressing Tamil engagement with the probe, is inevitable. Demilitarisation of the North-East and relentless continuing international scrutiny are imperative if the climate of terror is to end.